With another academic year churning on, many people, bemused by campus excitements — trigger warnings, safe spaces, “bias response teams” in hot pursuit of the perpetrators of microaggressions — wonder whether higher education has become a net subtraction from the nation’s stock of reasonableness. Those who read the Chronicle of Higher Education, a window into that world, are not reassured.
In May, the Chronicle published a dyspeptic report by Andrew Kay, a Wisconsin writer, on this year’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, whose members teach literature to a declining number of interested students: Kay says the number of English positions on the MLA job list has shrunk 55 percent since 2008, the number of University of Michigan English majors declined from 1,000 to 200 in eight years, and adjunct (limited-term, non-tenure track) instructors now are a majority of college teachers. Kay’s villains are “the avarice of universities” and “politicians and pundits” who despise “humanistic thinking, which plainly threatens them.” His disparagements implicitly enlarge and celebrate him as a threat to the villains.
He is nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s, which “brought literary-critical methods to bear on every aspect of culture, from sexuality to disability.” He is impervious to the possibility that his mentality, stocked with stereotypes and luxuriating in victimhood, might be a symptom of what repels students who care about actual literature more than “literary-critical” approaches to this and that.